Jakob the Liar

The Boston Phoenix

DIRECTED BY: Peter Kassovitz

REVIEWED: 09-27-99

Those who insisted that there could be no art after the Holocaust probably didn't have kitschy tragicomedies in mind. Predating Life Is Beautiful (it was made in 1998 but held back from release because of that film's success) was Robin Williams's remake of Frank Beyer's dour, quietly devastating East German 1977 Academy Award nominee Jacob the Liar. Compared with the Benigni blockbuster and Williams's own subsequent Patch Adams, this shaggy-dog-story set in a doomed Polish ghetto seems downright subdued.

Certainly Williams is toned down as the title character, an unassuming schlemiel who by chance hears of a Soviet advance over a Nazi radio. Not terribly bright or brave, Jakob nonetheless blurts out his secret and then some to save a suicidal friend's life. Word gets out that he has a contraband radio, hope spreads through the ghetto, and Jakob becomes a celebrity, a "prophet," and, almost, a resistance leader. No Good Morning, Warsaw -- Williams weakly hams it up on only two occasions, once for the requisite little girl holed up, Anne Frank-style, in his attic -- the film could almost use a little more pizzazz. Like the original, it's more an absurdist fable about hope and suicide than a palliative laughter-through-tears comedy, and veteran Hungarian director Peter Kassovitz keeps the tone and the color palette a uniform gray. Although Williams and his first-rate cast (Liev Schrieber, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Bob Balaban) work hard to play it straight, Liar doesn't ring true.

--Peter Keough

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